Nurla: A stopover in no man’s land
Take the road less travelled to Nurla on the banks of the Indus in Ladakh
Alongside a murmuring brook, a gentle uphill trail dissolves from a brown, muddy one to a path flanked by willows, fields of peas and barley, and fruit-laden apricot trees. There is not a soul in sight, but the worked fields and the lit butter lamps at the monastery shrine indicate habitation. A short hike back to the main road ends at a small settlement, equally peaceful and serene.
The only sound is that of the mighty Indus on the banks of which this hamlet sits. This could be anywhere in remote Ladakh, or one among its many, far-flung villages, but surprisingly, Nurla is barely a two-hour drive from its capital, Leh.
En route to its more popular sights like the ‘moonland’ of Lamayuru, the intersection of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, or the Alchi monastery, Nurla is a no man’s land that doesn’t feature on itineraries of first-time Ladakh visitors.
Now connected by a smooth highway, the drive from Leh to Nurla is in itself a preview of the raw beauty of the vast landscape ahead.
Past the hordes of tourists posing for photographs at Magnetic Hill or the clusters of believers at Patthar Sahib and the picturesque village of Basgo, the endless expanse of the cold desert runs into infinity. It’s marked only by the bizarrely beautiful windswept formations shaped by wind and water over millions of years, and the pulsating Indus cutting through its heart. In over a couple of hours, you pull into the settlement interspersed with a handful of hotels.
At the Apricot Tree—which gets its name from the trees in the central courtyard of the property—local entrepreneur Wangchuk Tsering Fargo welcomes guests to his home, Nurla. He grew up in the village, on his family land right across where generations before him grew barley and apricot and grazed livestock. His father Tsering Chospel occasionally worked as a guide, introducing intrepid travellers of the early 19th century to this remote part of the world.
Wangchuk’s love for the region stems from that enthusiasm. This is the hotbed for snow leopards, he tells you, with its ideal weather and little disturbance due to less footfall. Other than that, the trail up to Taar village, where few hikers go, is an easy three-hour return trip that also offers a chance to see Himalayan blue sheep, the Ladakh Urial, red fox and more. It is one of the few villages in Ladakh today not connected by road or electricity. A day’s trek can take you to Lamayuru, and a shorter Sham Valley exploration is also close by.
A short distance from the Apricot Tree, roughly a 10-minute drive, is Tingmosgang, the seat of Ladakhi royalty as we know it today. It is where the territory’s second dynasty, the Namgyals, whose lineage still lives today in Stok, originated from. Interchangeably known as Temisgam, Tingmosgang technically is the fortress that launched the town around it. Built by King Drag-pa-Bum as his capital in the 15th century (whose grandson started the Namgyal dynasty), it has a palace and a monastery, guarded by Achi, the sentinel goddess.
The monastery also houses a famed marble statue of Avalokiteshvara that devotees believe to be a self-originating idol. Part of the monastery premises also houses a giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha, the Sleeping Buddha, and copper-gold Buddha statues from Tibet.
The masterpiece, however, is the paintings from centuries ago that still cover many parts of the walls. For all these reasons, this is a historically significant place—a gift for those who make time for the detour.
Spiralling down from Temisgam and driving towards Tia-which is an extension of the city stopover at the fairly new Tserkarmo Drikyug Kagyo monastery is a must, both for its incredible Tibetan paintings and for the enormous, sacred juniper tree behind it that is an art installation contributed by nature. Down in the valley, back by the Indus, is a smattering of rocks with prehistoric art.
There is no signage announcing it—Wangchuk shows it to guests who are interested in history and art, and those who he feels will protect its identity from the masses. There is something special about this area, and it is not limited to its beauty. This stretch of the Indus, from Shey, past Leh, Basgo and Upshi, to Temisgang and further until Zanskar, is the historic heartland of Ladakh, its royalty and religion. Back at the Apricot Tree, above the roar of the Indus, a gentle breeze carries the stories of this gem far and wide.